Call it a a weird hunch, but we all know that now and then certain characters – either historical, fictional, or in between – experience an unaccountable surge of popularity. Consider, for example, how much we have seen of Sherlock Holmes lately.
The Second World War has been on the rise in the public imagination. To be fair, it has never been far out of fashion as a backdrop for historical drama, but every now and then (once a decade, say) it seems an especially popular context for storytelling. Since the late 1990s a great number of monumental efforts have been made to dramatize the periods before, after, and especially during this war. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List got the world’s attention in 1993, and the movement seems to have accelerated from there. Roberto Benigni gave us another searing perspective on the Holocaust with his whimsical tragedy La Vita é Bella (1997), and a year later Spielberg hit us again with Saving Private Ryan. Clint Eastwood recently sounded off with not one but two movies about Iwo Jima, and so on. The World War trend marches on. Without even delving into efforts from non-English speaking nations, it is clear to see the enduring fascination with this part of history. On the small screen, the lasting popularity of Band Of Brothers and the astounding 1970s documentary series The World At War speaks for itself.
Let us now consider two major entries from the last two years. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, blissfully ahistorical though it may be, shows an above-average effort to mingle genuine period atmosphere with the heavy stylization common to the director’s work. By contrast, Tom Hooper’s award-winning hit The King’s Speech follows the broad strokes, if not necessarily the intimate details, of history as it actually appears to have happened. There are countless other examples of varying success. Both of these just mentioned feature brief but colorful appearances by that crucial figure of the time, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Known best as the wartime Prime Minister, Churchill held in his distinguished career a number of other high positions, including Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. Renowned as an orator and statesman, he enjoys a permanent place in Western history. The adventure and controversy pervading his professional life seem ripe for an enterprising screenwriter to pick.
The King’s Speech features Timothy Spall, a seasoned character actor perhaps best known known for his villainous turns in Sweeney Todd and the Harry Potter films, in the role of Churchill. Basterds cast Rod Taylor – the guy from The Birds, among other things. Another Harry Potter mainstay, Brendan Gleeson, recently won much acclaim for his performance as Sir Winston in the HBO drama Into the Storm. The final portrayal of note was a deft impersonation by Bob Hoskins in the miniseries When Lions Roared – also featuring John Lithgow as Franklin Roosevelt and Michael Caine as Josef Stalin – all in all a peculiar but entertaining little play about the powers behind the battle for Europe. It seems, in other words, that Churchill’s life has been covered pretty well in the TV movie arena. Perhaps a major theatrical release is the next step.
Plenty of material on Churchill is available in print. Copious volumes have been written on the famous PM’s life, including William Manchester’s comprehensive series, The Last Lion. More recently, unflinching historian Max Hastings has given us Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945. We know more about this man than ever before. A new movie with him at the center seems not too far up the road.
Having expounded at length on a feature film about Churchill, can I condone it with a whole heart? Well, what do we know? As a rule, biographical films are known for not being all that great. This rule varies in proportion with the established renown of the subject. Walk The Line is a train wreck because it continually misses the point of what made Johnny Cash so interesting. Anyone who has actually read the man’s autobiography will concede that his entire married life to June Carter (completely beyond the scope of the film) had as much bearing on his legacy as did his unhappy childhood. This is to say nothing of the impossibility of casting such a film properly. Anyhow, dramatizations of history which do not focus too much on one particular figure tend to be better. Despite an irritating tendency of intellectuals to bash it for fun, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is a damned entertaining historical drama, all the better for its rock-solid ensemble cast. The King’s Speech boasts similar virtues, and Timothy Spall’s supporting appearance as Churchill really helped to drive the point home.
There is an element of caricature necessary to a competent portrayal of such a distinct and well-known figure, which makes the challenge of investing him with real depth all the greater. Bruno Ganz proved this quite boldly in his acclaimed portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the film Downfall. If all reports are true, 2011 may be the year of Lincoln. Robert Redford recently completed his new film The Conspirator, which deals with the assassination plot aimed at the 16th U. S. President and its aftermath. Harrison Ford was rumored to be involved with an adaptation of the book Manhunt, which tackles the pursuit and shooting of John Wilkes Boothe. Most notably, Steven Spielberg seems to be hard at work on an epic Lincoln biography, based on the book Team Of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and starring Daniel Day-Lewis (who replaces Liam Neeson). All this is to say nothing, of course, of the upcoming Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, adapted from the book of the same title.
Biographical drama in film need not be dull, but nine times out of ten, it is. Occasionally a perceptive writer or director will find the right angle and the right cast to carry it home. Why not give bully old Mister Churchill a shot?